Repairing dents and scratches in hardwood floors

Fixing dents and scratches in hardwood floors is not as straightforward and simple a process as it may seem. There are numerous factors involved in correctly addressing the damage and restoring the floors to their original appearance, and a few problems can turn a simple touch-up job into a big project.

If you or your clients have hardwood floors that have sustained scratching and denting resulting from high heel use, furniture marks, or general wear and tear, here’s a how-to guide for repairing the problems to the best of your ability.

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Your first step: Determine the extent and cause of the damage

First, figure out how deep have the scratches or dents have penetrated. Small scratches on the uppermost layer of finish are easier to repair than scratches that have penetrated through the finish and impacted the wood itself.

In mapping out your repair plan, you should also consider the location and noticeability of the scratches. If the scratch crosses five floor boards and it’s in a high-traffic area of the room, such as at the threshold of a doorway, you’ll have to do more extensive repairs that may require a drum sander rather than simply trying to fill it in with a touch-up marker.

Once you have determined the extent and noticeability of the damage, you’re on your way to figuring out which method of the following three will be best to use in your situation.

Method #1: Mechanical abrading  for simple but less concealable repairs

To repair a scratch that doesn’t fully penetrate through the finish, you may be able to mechanically abrade or buff out  the scratch.  Polish it out of the finish, and then lightly  recoat or touch up  the area. This is a very similar approach to buffing out a light scratch on your car and then waxing it.

For an oil-modified finish, use a fine steel wool pad to gently buff out the scratch, taking care to move the pad along the grain of the wood.

You cannot use a fine steel wool pad if you are planning to apply water-based finish. The steel wool will leave dust behind that will turn into rust when it interacts with the water in the finish. In this case, use a surface preparation pad (SPP) instead.

After buffing the scratch out of the surface of the finish, recoat the spot.

You may also be able to get away with using touch-up sticks that match the color of the finish if the scratch is very light and shallow.

For quick buff and sand jobs, shop our line of sanding screens.

Method #2: Wood filler or wood putty for deeper scratches

If the scratch is a bit deeper than surface-level,  fill the scratch with wood filler that matches the color of the wood, and then recoat.

Like the previous method, this type of fix is only recommended if you are dealing with a small scratch in a small concentrated area. Wood filler is not a good product to use if you’re looking to conceal huge, deep scratches because it can’t mimic the grain of the wood.

Method #3: Replace the boards or recoat the floors

In cases where bare wood is exposed, extensive damage is likely, and you may need to replace the damaged boards. If the damage is concentrated on one or two boards, you should remove and replace the damaged boards.

If you do decide to recoat an isolated area, it will be difficult to match the sheen level in the new finish and thus to hide the repair. Very often, the repaired area of the floor will stand out from the rest of the floor, even if you try to achieve an exact match between the sheen levels.

If the damage is spread out across the entire room, like dents resulting from high heel use, you may want to consider a good clean and recoat.

This is also good method to use for repairing  extensive scratches that are not deep enough to damage the wood itself—you can screen just deep enough to buff out the scratches while leaving the wood untouched.

If you have to recoat, make sure to clean up first.

Cleaning and clearing the floors of all dust before applying the finish coat  is essential to get a beautiful finish.

After vacuuming up as much debris as you can, go over the floor with a rag soaked in pure mineral spirits if you are going to recoat with an oil-modified urethane finish. If you’re going to use a water-based finish, soak the rag in water instead of mineral spirits to clean up.

Make certain to wring out your rags tightly. They just need to be damp to get those last dust particles off the surface.

Let the floor dry completely before you continue onto recoating the floor. Finish can only be properly applied to surface that is completely clean and dry.

Need to recoat? Browse our selection of hardwood floor finishes.

Be sure to allow for enough dry time in between coats as well.

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Now that we’ve described the possible methods you can use to remove scratches from your floor, here are a few pitfalls that you can come across that may force you to modify your repair plan.

Problem #1: Above average damage for simple wear and tear? Perform an adhesion test.

If you notice that your floors are sustaining scratches from simple wear-and-tear usage, such as kitchen chairs scraping across the floor, finish failure might be the cause of your scratching problem. This means that the finish is not properly adhering to the wood.

You can test for floor-to-finish adhesion by conducting what’s called a “tic-tac-toe” adhesion test.

In an inconspicuous area of the floor, use a knife to cut a cross-hatch pattern into the finish over several different boards. Put  scotch tape over the pattern and then rip it up.

If a high percentage the finish transfers to the tape, this means that the finish is not adhering to the wood, and you have to sand the whole floor down to bare wood and refinish. If it’s just one or two boards that are scratched up and fail the adhesion test, you can replace them.

Another thing to consider is that some prefinished floors contain additives such as ScotchGard and or StainMaster to protect the floor from stains, and their presence will prevent new finish from adhering properly to the previous layers of finish.

To check for the presence of additives in the previous layers of finish before attempting a recoat, use an inconspicuous spot on the floor to test out your new finish. If an additive is present, the new finish will bead up.

If the previous finish contains an additive, you cannot simply recoat the floor—you must sand down to bare wood and apply new coats of finish in order to restore adhesion and eliminate the scratching problem.

Problem #2: Wax- and/or shellac-coated floors? You cannot use a simple surface re-coat.

Before you can move on to repairing the damage, you should do a spot test to determine whether there is wax, or shellac on the surface of the floor. Some of these may force you to recoat the floor with the same material rather than using a polyurethane.

You can do a simple spot test to determine whether any of these are present before recoating the floor.

To check for shellac, scratch an inconspicuous area of the floor with a sharp object, such as the edge of a coin. Flaking can signal the presence of shellac, and this means that floor must be refinished in a particular way.

You can also use denatured alcohol to test the area. If the denatured alcohol causes the finish to dissolve, it is shellac.

If shellac is the top coat you can use a 100 percent dewaxed shellac as your first coat and then put poly urethane over it or recoat with 2 coats of 3lb shellac.

To check for wax, apply mineral spirits to a clean, white rag. A slightly brown or yellow color on the rag indicates that the floor is coated in wax.

If the floors are coated in wax, you must use wax when recoating. If you’re dealing with a small scratch on a wax-coated hardwood floor in an isolated area, tape around the affected board to isolate it. Rub off the wax, repair the scratch, and then rewax the area.

If the floor isn’t coated in wax or shellac, you can go ahead and recoat with a regular surface finish.

Problem #3: Dents and gouges usually require floor replacement.

Stilettos are not friendly with hardwood floors. If you find that your floor is riddled with dents from high heels, you’re not going to have an easy time fixing them because they usually damage the wood fibers.

Gouges resulting from incorrectly moving heavy furniture across the floor will leave you with a similar problem.

If the damage is concentrated in a small area, such as on a single board or a cluster of boards, consider replacing the damaged boards and the surrounding boards to ensure a uniform appearance and a less noticeable repair job.

You can also consider sanding down to the bare wood and filling the gouges or dents with wood filler, and then refinishing the area that you’ve repaired. But this is not likely to result in the nice, uniform appearance that you’re after. Unless you’re exceptionally good at blending wood fillers to match the rest of the floor, the repair will likely stick out like a sore thumb.

If dents are spread out over the entire floor and have impacted the wood itself, replacing the floor may be the only solution to get rid of them.

The technique of applying a clothing iron to the wood to “buff out” the dent rarely works, and you can actually further damage the floor if you’re not careful.

Prevent damage by taking precautions.

Prevention is always the best medicine.

Though it’s best to recoat your floors every several years to keep them looking fresh and new, you can take a number of steps to preserve your floor’s longevity.

To prevent dents, take high heels off by the door. If you, your housemates, or your guests insist on wearing high heels around the house, make sure that the protective caps on the heels remain intact.

Trim pet nails regularly to prevent them from scratching up the floors, banish pets from areas of the house with hardwood flooring, or live with the minor scratches (like we do).

Vacuum often to avoid a buildup of dirt and grit that will be tracked over the floor and end up scratching it. Put mats near doorways to minimize the amount of grit tracked into the house. Click here to browse our selection of hardwood floor cleaning products that won’t damage your finish.

Most importantly, affix furniture pads to the bottoms of chairs, couches, and other heavy furniture, and avoid dragging them across the floor when moving them.

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Feel free to contact us if you need help repairing damage to your floor, determining what type of repairs will be necessary, or locating a hardwood flooring professional in your area who can do the job. You can reach us at (800) 737-1786 or info@cityfloorsupply.com.

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(Image credits: freedigitalphotos.net; pixabay.com; “Shellac board” by Nuberger13 at en.wikipedia – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shellac_board.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Shellac_board.JPG)


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6 thoughts on “Repairing dents and scratches in hardwood floors

  1. Jenna Hunter

    My husband dropped his can of coins from his collection on the floor yesterday and our floor came our losing with lots of dents. It was astounding to read from the page that small scratches on the uppermost layer of finish are easier to repair. We will be sure to keep that in mind in order to fix the floor and get it back to to the way it was!

    Reply
  2. Kayla

    Thanks for this info. Our flooring is beyond repair. My husband is now planning to install new hardwood flooring. We are now looking up some contractors to do it.

    Reply
  3. Kaylee Coleman

    Thank you for posting. Use a plastic putty knife to fill the scratch with wood filler that matches the color of the floor. Let the filler dry thoroughly. Be sure to use a plastic putty knife to apply the filler (you don’t want to create any new scratches).

    Reply
  4. Hazel Owens

    Thanks for the tip about using scotch tape to check if the finish is staying to the wood or not. I just tried it and found the tape had a lot of finish on it so we’ll probably have to sand the floor and refinish it. We’ll have to call a company that can sand and finish it for us since we don’t have the right equipment to do the job.

    Reply
  5. Aldwin Graham

    Thank you for posting. It’s important to start by knowing what kind of finish is on your floor. Is your finish oil or water based? Do you have a wax coating? Is the wood varnished or stained? Is there an aluminum oxide coating? Know what the surface is made of so you know how to start your wood floor scratch repair.

    Reply

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